Living on a ship with 2 kids: The joy of serving together as a family
This story is part of a special series produced in collaboration with OM Singapore, which is celebrating 40 years of God’s faithfulness in missions this year.
Willy and Sharon took a step of faith to sail with their young family, which turned out to be a powerful experience that would shape their children's formative years. Photos courtesy of Willy Ong and OM Singapore.
At just 41 years old, Willy Ong is the Executive Director of Operation Mobilisation (OM) Singapore.
But as Willy himself would tell you, this journey simply started with a search for the meaning of life.
“I grew up in a traditional, non-Christian family steeped in ancestral worship,” said Willy of his roots. As a young person, he had a bit of a rebellious streak as well, and eventually became a free thinker.
Recalling the memory with a laugh, Willy shared that his first encounter with Christianity in university was actually not a great one. His friends had presented a brand of “militant Christianity”, which he found off-putting.
“But I was actually very open,” reflected the father of two.
MAKING WAVES… TOGETHER
After graduating with a degree in business studies and doing a stint in recruitment and HR, Willy joined Mercy Relief, a humanitarian NGO based in Singapore.
Serving in the wake of the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed some 300,000 people, the Mercy Relief Singapore office was the unlikely place where Willy met Sharon, the woman he would marry.
Sharon had worked as an engineer for four to five years and was volunteering for a few months with Mercy Relief, as she was inclined to community development work.
Willy found that she was a “very strange girl” given that her interests were in toilets and wastewater. But after a whirlwind period of crisis management, the two became fast friends and soon got together.
Candidly, Willy shared that it was Sharon who first brought him to church. But this encounter with Christianity had similarly not gone well, this time because of introductory programmes that he found pushy.
The impetus to find out more about the faith would eventually come from an unlikely source – Sharon’s dad.
Born to Singaporean missionaries serving in Japan, Sharon grew up and went to a boarding school there before attending another boarding school in the Philippines.
“Her dad passed me Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis,” said Willy. As he started reading the book, Willy found something strange was happening. This author seemed to know exactly what he was thinking!
“I started arguing with him as I read the book,” said Willy. “And he would always answer my question in the next chapter or something like that.
“I started really being curious about Christian faith in this way, and started reading the Bible.”
While back in Singapore on a home assignment, Sharon’s dad offered to run Willy through the book of Mark in the Bible on a weekly basis.
Those conversations were what eventually brought Willy to face the truth: “I couldn’t run away from the fact that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.”
From that point on, Willy gave his life to God and began attending church with Sharon. That was also when the couple started to more deeply involve themselves in ministry.
THE ANNUAL REVIEW THAT LED TO A SEA VIEW
After Willy and Sharon were married, they made the bold decision to quit work and go on honeymoon for six months. The couple travelled extensively, even visiting dangerous places to see what missions there would look like for them.
That level of risk appetite went down sharply after becoming parents, joked Sharon.
But in 2012, while doing an annual review of where they were going, the couple began to pray and seek God’s will for their family, which now included their two-year-old.
It was like, when someone takes your dreams and puts them down on paper, and then shows you how it looks like.
While an opportunity came up to be part of the leadership team at Mercy Teams International (MTI), a ministry of OM, the couple felt they were still too young and inexperienced.
That conversation, however, opened their eyes to the possibilities of a life they had always dreamed of.
“It was like, when someone takes your dreams and puts them down on paper, and then shows you how it looks like,” described Sharon.
Though they had no clue what was next, the couple were filled with a sense of excitement for the future and began praying to God for a sign.
The very next day, the Logos Hope docked in town. One of their friends from cell group, Jill, also offered to organise a private tour of the ship, as she was serving as a crew member on board.
Hearing Jill share about her experience, Willy felt the Lord’s prompting to serve on board the ship.
“So, with Jill’s testimony, after the ship tour, I sat down at the café on board the ship with our daughter who was half asleep in the sling at that time.
“And I asked Sharon, what do you think of serving on the ship for two years, like what Jill is doing? And her answer was ‘okay’. Just like that.”
As a Third Culture Kid who grew up in a place away from her homeland, Sharon was globalised and more than willing to head out into missions.
“Jill described it as ‘I have the privilege of being able to see what God is doing in so many parts of the world. It’s like a buffet – I get to eat many different kinds of food,'” recounted Sharon.
“‘At the end of it, I can get a sense of what these foods taste like. And then maybe I’ll have something that I really like to do.'”
ROCKING THE BOAT
There were a couple of hiccups before the Ongs were finally able to embark on their epic voyage, but embark they did two years later – with another kid in tow!
It was a dive into the deep end for the family of four, who stepped aboard the Logos Hope and joined 400 crew members from nearly 60 countries.
Willy took up various roles in directing all public-facing ministries of the ship and also running the relief aid and development ministry.
Sharon mostly took care of the children and participated in the life and ministry of the ship.
Sharon shared that having children in the mission field – let alone a sailing ship – is a powerful and unique experience.
“They get to grow up in this amazing bubbly, loud, always-something-happening environment,” said Sharon. “That’s nice for the children. It’s nice for the visitors as well.”
Acknowledging that there were times when they had to sit out ministry opportunities, Sharon said: “With children, there’s a number of things you cannot do.”
Willy concurred with that sentiment, noting that it’s easy to feel like one is missing out on the excitement because there’s always something new happening every day.
That was sometimes a source of tension for the couple, who shared honestly about how they often had to slow down for their children, who needed to be fed, changed and napped.
“But there are also things you can do,” Sharon pointed out. “Like just playing by the quay, blowing bubbles for my kids and the whole crowd waiting to board the ship!”
When Logos Hope calls at ports, people can wait for hours to board the ship. And so, there would be quite a lot of crowd management needed.
In addition to giving out Christian tracts, Sharon remembered helping with entertainment such as making balloons or puppets.
“My children both benefited from it and contributed to it as well, like being part of the circus,” she joked.
A GLIMPSE AT WHAT GOD IS DOING
Life on a ship that docks at ports around the world also presents a unique advantage not many are able to enjoy.
“You get an overview of what God is doing in the world,” revealed Sharon.
“It’s really life changing to see how God is working in each individual port in a unique way. And how He has a plan for different people.
“It’s a very important thing to live my life in light of that especially with COVID-19, because your world becomes very small. But the very big world is still running by God’s plan, so it’s very wonderful to see how God’s hand is working.”
HIGHLIGHTS OF LIFE ON THE SHIP
For Sharon, her time on Logos Hope was also the first time that she had the chance to interact with sex workers. She recounted befriending a girl in the Philippines and eventually talking about Jesus’ love for her.
“Her mama-san, or supervisor, just like looked at me and said, ‘There is no love for these girls.’ And it broke my heart.”
Through conversations like these, Sharon learned that there are many others who need and who want to receive the message and love of Jesus.
That initial encounter has since grown into a passion for reach out to sex workers in Singapore, something Sharon has continued doing on the streets of Geylang today.
Some of Willy’s fondest memories come from the Sunday service worship nights aboard the ship. That was a clear reflection of Revelation 7:9 for him – a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, tribes, people, languages, standing before the throne in worship.
“You look left, you look right, you see people from different nationalities, skin colour, languages,” he said with a grin. “And sometimes, we have certain worship songs that just cut across languages.”
“For the children, it’s just natural. They’re so young, right? They just go in there, jump and run around with kids from other countries and things like that,” mused Sharon.
“But to me, it’s also across generations – families, young people, older people are coming together as an image of heaven!”
And yet, for such a diverse crew, the Ongs were the only Asian family with children on the ship for most of the time.
The couple said that singles would share with them how nice it was to have families on board. As the family of four interacted with crew members especially over seasons like Chinese New Year, they provided a tangible sense of community to those who were homesick and lonely.
“They said watching the babies grow up gives them a sense of time because they lose track of time on board the ship,” recalled Sharon. “Because people come, people go – it’s like a constant flux. They forget what season it is, or when the time is.”
“Clearly there was a purpose why we were aboard the ship,” remarked Willy.
AN EDUCATION UNLIKE ANY OTHER
“It’s a beautiful thing when God calls a couple and a family into the field, and works through the whole family to do His work,” said Sharon.
The couple shared that they had set out with simple desires for their children: that they would make good choices, and that they would know and pursue God.
In that vein, Sharon revealed that their daughter has already been deeply impacted by spending her formative years aboard the Logos Hope.
“Her Primary 1 teacher came to me – one year after the ship – and she said something like, ‘I’ve never met anyone like your daughter before; she is extremely mature.’
“Mature is the word. I think she was walking to a different drum beat at that age,” said Sharon.
As their chapter aboard the Logos Hope drew to a close, Willy was approached for the leadership role at OM Singapore because of his work in project management and his ability to navigate cross-cultural sensibilities.
But Willy’s first reaction was to say “no”.
“Ask someone else to do it lah!” was his cry. He was then rebuked by the Lord and also his mentor who offered words of wisdom: “If this is a role that is meant for you, even if you run away, like Jonah, it will come back to you again.”
Willy also came to see that if something is not meant for you, it will not work out no matter how you “chiong” for the role. The better way, then, was to have an open attitude and an open mind to just see what the role was about and to pray about it.
“That was what I did,” said Willy. “Towards the end of our commitment on the ship, it became clear… that’s how we joined and took up the national directorship.”
Speaking on the radical culture OM founder George Verwer modelled, Sharon marvelled: “It’s a glorious history of young people doing crazy things.”
And yet Willy and Sharon acknowledge that their incredible journey came from a place of simple willingness.
“If you love Jesus, just come and follow Him, and let’s just go out there and do missions – preparation and training happens along the way,” elaborated Willy on the heart behind the action at OM.
“It’s a very fast way of learning how to grow,” affirmed Sharon. “God can move you better when you’re moving. He can guide you better when you’re moving than when you’re staying still.
“As you serve, it’s a better time for God to speak and show you more things than if you’re sitting still and waiting for something to happen.”
“Do first, think later,” was how Willy summed it all up half-jokingly. “Just whack!”
Did you know that 3 billion people today have no access to a meaningful gospel witness? Come on mission with OM to live out the love of God among the nations. Explore opportunities by visiting the OM Singapore website, or following them on Instagram and Facebook.
To commemorate their 40th year, OM Singapore has also published a book, Unchanging: On Mission With a Faithful God, capturing 40 stories of Singaporeans who love God and His mission in many parts of the world. You can purchase the book here: www.sg.om.org/book
THINK + TALK
- How do you see God working around you? Ask Him to open the eyes of your heart to see things through His eyes!
- Is there an area of your life that you’re seeking greater clarity in?
- Do you believe that clarity can come as you serve God in the areas He has opened for you to be in?